Victoria And Abdul, 2017.
Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Tim Piggott-Smith, Michael Gambon, and Olivia Williams.
Queen Victoria is in her declining years when she forms a close friendship with Abdul Karim, a clerk from Agra in India. As well as being her confidante, he becomes her advisor, teaching her about the Koran and to speak Urdu – much to the consternation of her courtiers and the Prince Of Wales.
Are we in the midst of Queen Victoria madness? As her younger self has her mettle tested as a monarch and a mother on Sunday night television, her final years come to the big screen this week, as portrayed by Dame Judi Dench.
It’s not, of course, the first time she’s played the monarch in her post-Albert years. In John Madden’s Mrs Brown (1997) she was shown forming an attachment to Billy Connolly’s John Brown, to the disapproval of her advisors. In Victoria And Abdul, she’s older, but in a similar situation. And, while Dench plays Victoria for the second time, she’s also in the hands of a director with something of a track record when it comes to films about the British monarchy. Stephen Frears was at the helm for the multi-award winning The Queen (2006).
But this latest offering is unlikely to add to his trophy collection, or Dame Judi’s. The story of Victoria’s friendship with Abdul Karim is, apparently, based on real events. Or so the on-screen caption at the start would have you believe. But the heavy-handed exclamation mark at the end of that explanation takes you up a blind alley, the inference being that there’s a comedy in store, or maybe even a satire. In truth, it’s neither and comes closer to being a farce. And not in a good way.
As Victoria, Dench gives the thoroughly professional performance you’d expect, although it’s harder to warm to this older Queen as she greedily chomps her way through the latest banquet at such speed that nobody else manages more than a couple of mouthfuls from each course. In the latter stages of the film, she gives a speech about herself, describing all her shortcomings. But the shortcoming is that Frears and screenwriter Lee Hall believed it was necessary in the first place. She’s only telling us what we’ve already seen in her performance and it’s something of an insult to an actress of her calibre. However, her acute loneliness is touching and the younger, exotic young man from India gives her a new lease of life.
That the film simply can’t decide whether it wants to be a comedy of sorts or not is just one of its niggling problems. The tone is gratingly inconsistent and there are times when the characters follow suit – Abdul (Ali Fazal) in particular. Initially, the ingénue in town, there are times when he’s depicted as being all out for himself, manipulating situations to his advantage. But the idea is never developed, and his character ends up being nothing more than slight. This makes his friendship with the Queen even less convincing, apart from the occasional moment of pathos, and they’re down to Dench’s acting alone.
As in Mrs Brown, Victoria is surrounded by officials and advisors, portrayed by some well-loved faces – Tim Piggott-Smith (in one of his last film roles), Michael Gambon and Eddie Izzard as Bertie, Prince of Wales, who leads the effort to discredit Abdul who is now the Queen’s “munshi” (teacher). It’s more than a little familiar and, like before, they fail at every turn. The sad thing is that the script doesn’t do much better, giving them very little to work with and turning Bertie into something of a pantomime villain. Nor does it do Victoria herself any favours by making her appear politically ignorant, especially when it comes to the reason for the Indian mutiny. It makes no sense whatsoever and stretches the film’s credibility to breaking point.
At a shade under two hours, the film runs for too long. By the time the end finally arrives, Frears has passed up at least three opportunities to bring everything to a tidy close. The final scene is there just to give us a nice shot of the Taj Mahal, and that isn’t reason enough. Ultimately, he’s given us a slight, inconsistent and rather flabby interpretation of what was probably an interesting story. And one that leans too heavily on the talents and star quality of its leading lady.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★